Saturday 16 December 2017

Hidden treasure

From 'Friday Night Lights' to 'How To Make It In America', there's a wealth of TV gems hiding in the schedules, says Declan Cashin. So, tune in before these small-screen beauties get the axe

Paul Whitington

In this so-called 'Golden Age of television', it's almost impossible to watch or keep track of every quality comedy and drama on the box. For that reason, 'Weekend' is at hand to direct your attention to some of the best TV shows that you should be watching, but probably aren't.

  • The Middle (3e, Tuesday, 9pm)

Okay, on the surface (and even in the title), this one appears to be a shameless rip-off of 'Malcolm in the Middle'. However, while Malcolm was categorised on 'The Simpsons' side of comedy, 'The Middle' is a more old-fashioned domestic sitcom, but one that manages to find fresh and funny ways to explore the American family dynamic, straddling the lines between satire, dark humour, and gentle schmaltz with some aplomb.

It's an underrated gem, with five sharply drawn and engaging characters at its core, led by Patricia Heaton (best known as the wife from 'Everybody Loves Raymond') and Neil Flynn (the sadistic janitor from 'Scrubs').

  • Cougar Town (RTE2/Sky Living, various times)

Wait, come back! Yes, this is the same show that gained a lot of bad press after its first episodes in which its star Courteney Cox played a fortysomething woman chasing toy-boy lovers. But, believe me when I tell you, the show quickly abandoned that eye-rolling premise, ditching its slightly hysterical tone in the process. Instead, it opened out the show to focus on the wider ensemble cast. And the zany 'Scrubs'-like results are very, very funny indeed.

If 'Seinfeld' was the show about nothing, 'Cougar Town' is the show in which the characters do nothing -- other than sit around Cox's house, playing pranks on one another, helping each other through gentle emotional and relationship crises, and quaffing enormous, liver-bashing quantities of red wine.

Charming, madcap and quite poignant: are you ready to give Cox and 'Cougar Town' one more, ahem, ride?

  • How To Make It in America (Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 10.50pm)

Produced by Mark Wahlberg -- the producer of (and inspiration for) the hit bloke comedy 'Entourage' -- 'Make It' is a more down-on-its-luck, start-up version of that show, about two twentysomething New Yorkers trying to hustle their way into the fashion business.

After a surprisingly downbeat start, 'Make It' hooks you in with its effortless charm, buzzy energy and likeable rapport between its leading men (Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk). It's a fun show, a love letter to the lower east side of Manhattan (and its cool parties), as well as being painfully relevant for most people in their 20s. A second season has been commissioned to air in the US later this year, when, hopefully, it will hit its stride after laying some good groundwork.

  • Friday Night Lights (3e/ITV4, various times)

The important thing to stress in any discussion of the criminally underrated 'Friday Night Lights' (or 'FNL' as the devotees call it) is that it's not just about American football.

The game is just a very small part of it, the hook for a show about small-town American life, which a writer in the 'New York Review of Books', no less, recently praised for offering, "amongst other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I'm aware".

Indeed, at the huge, beating heart of the show is the unbreakable, utterly believable, and -- a rarity in TV drama -- happy marriage between high-school coach Eric (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami Taylor (Connie Britton).

They are surrounded by a cast of the most realistic, complex and likeable teenage characters on television, who all benefit from some exquisite writing, and, as a result, deliver consistently beautiful (and often improvised) performances.

Personally, I cry an average of three times per episode. Not for nothing did the 'Los Angeles Times' recently declare that 'FNL' "may just be the best dramatic series in the history of television".

  • Community (3e/Viva, awaiting new series)

Little-watched, but passionately proclaimed by its loyal fans to be the best sitcom on the tube right now, this show revolves around the various mature (physically, if not mentally or emotionally) students in a local community college.

Led by Joel McHale, and featuring a riotous supporting turn from Chevy Chase, 'Community' stumbled in its early episodes as it struggled to find the right tone and carve its own identity in the crowded sitcom landscape, and as a result alienated intrigued viewers and critics.

However, its second series -- which is still airing in the US -- has been an unqualified critical success, drawing huge praise for its clever tinkering with, and loving homages to, sitcom mythology, earning it the nickname "the 'Inception' of sitcoms".

  • United States of Tara (RTE2, new series later this year)

To its credit, RTE has shown both series of this dark comedy-drama, but as so often happens, it was buried in the late-night schedules and never seemed to find the wider audience it deserves.

Toni Collette (left) stars -- in an Emmy and Golden Globe winning role -- as an American housewife with multiple personality disorder. The show examines -- often in blackly humorous ways -- the effect her condition has on husband John Corbett (Aidan from 'Sex and the City') and her two teenage children.

Written by 'Juno' Oscar winner Diablo Cody, and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Tara boasts some razor-sharp writing, a sensational lead performance from Collette, and in the character of her son Marshall, the best and most believable gay character currently on television.

  • Fringe (RTE2/Sky 1, new series in April)

In its third season in the US (due to start here next month), 'Fringe' looks perilously close to being axed due to low ratings. Created by 'Lost' and 'Star Trek' wunderkind JJ Abrams, this sci-fi/mystery/horror thriller has always had good reviews, and has built up a strong cult following.

Starring 'Dawson's Creek' alum Joshua Jackson, the show deals in parallel universes and all manner of supernatural phenomena. Fans swear by it. Worth catching now before it ends up on the TV chopping block.

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